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26th April 2023

Equity for women in Science: An interview with Dr Cassidy Sugimoto

In their new book, Dr Cassidy Sugimoto and Dr Vincent Larivière highlight the challenges facing women in science and how they can be addressed.
Equity for women in Science: An interview with Dr Cassidy Sugimoto
Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion

I’m sat across the table from Dr Cassidy Sugimoto, a leading global figure in scientometric research, to discuss science communication and the experience of women in science. This exclusive interview precedes her afternoon presentation hosted at the Alliance Manchester Business School by Professor Luke Georghiou, as part of the Fred Jevons lecture series organised by Professor Kieron Flanagan.

As Professor of Public Policy and School Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr Sugimoto is extremely well published and her previous research has included investigating the credibility of scientific data posted on social media, the division of scientific labour, and authorship disagreements in collaborative science.

The common thread of her work is, as she puts it, “not only why diversity, equity, and inclusion is good for individuals, but why is it good for science?” She continued, “How might diversity in science change what we know about the world, and potentially change science itself?”

“What does it matter who is speaking?”

She opens her talk with a quote from Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, who asked “What does it matter who is speaking?” Dr Sugimoto answered, “It matters a lot. Who ends up on a by-line of an article, or a book chapter, is the currency of scientific knowledge production. With more citations, scientists have a cumulative advantage in the economy of reputation.” Essentially, a scientist’s credibility increases as the number of publications they author rises.

Here at The University of Manchester, women make up only 24% of physics undergraduate students. In 2016, nearly half of all schools in England had no girls studying physics at A-level, and almost a third had only one girl taking the subject. This is despite the fact that girls perform just as well as boys in physics at GCSE.

In her new book, Dr Sugimoto uses data models to show gender parity will only be achieved in physics by 2158. And it is far from the only field that has a gender gap: in almost every scientific subject, the number of male graduates exceeds the number of female counterparts.

On the other hand, psychology is leading the way for women in STEM: achieving 50% gender parity in professional practice. Alongside other fields such as nursing and social care, Dr Sugitmoto found “disciplines that have majority women authorships are rooted in historically feminized professions.”

In her book, Dr Sugimoto tells the story of the reversal of the feminization of computer science across the twentieth century, which is also depicted in the film Hidden Figures. Sugimoto explains, “The earliest computer programmers were women, such as the notable Grace Hooper” and Katherine Johnson who calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions.

But by the 1950s “programming shifted towards a masculine orientation due to the adoption of aptitude tests and professional requirements that discriminated against women. By the 1960s women had been marginalized to the ranks of clerical workers.” Today, computer science continues to be a scientific field dominated by men, with women making up only 23% of the technical staff at Apple in 2021.

The leaky pipeline of STEM

The ‘leaky pipeline’ is a term used to describe the disproportionate rate at which women and minority individuals in STEM subjects leave academia compared to men, a gap which widens as scientists progress through their career. Dr Sugimoto showed that women have been out graduating men in biology for decades but, “we are not seeing their work get into the scientific realm, women are going into practice rather than into research.”

In all sciences, Dr Sugimoto observed different kinds of pathways for men and women where “women were often relegated to certain disciplines that tend to be under-resourced.” By investigating the labour indicators (acknowledgements) in scientific papers Dr Sugimoto found a very different story about who is actually ‘doing’ scientific work.

On average young scientists perform experiments and older scholars are the ones who design the studies. Furthermore, women are 1.52 times more likely to be cited for experimental work than men: they are the ‘hands of science’. Conversely, men are more likely to design the experiment, contribute equipment, analyse the data and write the paper.

So when we ask “who does science?”, Dr Sugimoto provides two different answers. According to published data, men do science. But when you look at who is actually doing the experiments, a role that is assigned less academic value, it is more likely to be a woman.

Patching the leaky pipeline

We know there is a loss of women from science post-graduation, but how do we keep them and make sure they feel valued? Interestingly, Dr Sugimoto found that if a researcher is in a leadership position early in their career, the probability of them staying in science for longer is higher. Further to this, she adds, “Having women in senior research roles increased the likelihood of women being involved in the project and the number of women given credit on the paper.”

However, women make up less than 30% of researchers worldwide, and this gender disparity is reflected in leadership positions. Fixing the leaky pipeline will require work at every point, from school, to post-doctorate.

Research bias

Following Dr Sugimotos’ presentation, there was a panel of several University of Manchester academics led by Professor Carsten Timmerman from the Center of the History of Science and Technology. Professor of Radio Astronomy, Anna Scaife said, “These are the numbers I’ve always wanted to know; it is a very strange thing to see one’s lived reality in this way.”

Briefly covered in the talk were analytics about female and ethnic minority researchers investigating issues that disproportionality affect their own communities. For example, MBRRACE-UK (a research initiative by the University of Oxford) in collaboration with FivexMore (an advocacy group supporting black mothers with its campaigning work) found that in the UK black women are 4 times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women.

Professor Dawn Edge of Mental Health and Inclusivity asked how race and gender determined “what is considered worthwhile research to the scientific community,” and found in her scientific career that “research into healthcare issues for people of colour is continuously underfunded.”

What can we do?

The university recommendations we can take away from Dr Sugimoto’s book lie in the conclusion. She encourages us to proactively acknowledge the work of female scientists by ensuring reading and seminar material include women-led projects, as well as promoting our own professors through programs like Athena SWAN.

If this article has fed your enthusiasm to learn more about the history of women in science and their lived experiences (some might fill you with hope!), you can read Dr Sugimoto’s book via the library website or purchase it online.

Freya Anderson

Freya Anderson

Chemistry BSc from the University of Liverpool, currently studying an MSc in Science and Health Communications at the University of Manchester

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